Not long after they began living their dream of owning a dance studio in their new hometown of Columbia 25 years ago, two sisters from Michigan watched that dream go up in flames — the seven-alarm kind.
Six years before tragedy struck, Diane Andrews and Mary Harper had decided to combine their artistic and entrepreneurial skills and become studio owners and artistic directors. Ready to take that leap of faith in June 1987, they rented a space and hustled to spread the word.
“No one knew who we were,” recalls Harper, who had followed her older sister from Michigan, where they had cultivated reputations as performers and teachers. “We canvassed the area and stuffed mailboxes with fliers.”
The pair found an affordable site in Wilde Lake near Bryant Woods Elementary School. There were only two or three dance studios in the area then, and only one was located in Columbia, so they figured they had a good shot at success.
In September 1987, Backstage Dance Studio opened its doors with 35 students. The sisters had been hoping for a larger number, but they drew on their characteristic high-energy approach and got down to business. Their charismatic brand of talent and optimism paid off.
“We grew quite fast, and had 125 students performing in our first recital,” Andrews says. “Growth was pretty consistent.”
But their years of smooth sailing were interrupted on Aug. 1, 1993, when their studio burned to the ground in the middle of the night.
“Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into the pool house nearby,” Andrews says. “We followed the fire trucks to the scene to see 9-foot flames.”
The timing of the disaster couldn’t have been worse. A classroom addition to the two-room studio had just been completed the day before and the final payment made to the contractor. A session of summer camp was set to begin later that very morning.
“We began calling everyone at 5 a.m. and offering refunds,” Harper recalls.
But through the behind-the-scenes magic of The Rouse Co., which was their landlord at the time, and the sisters’ own determination not to let catastrophe derail their young studio, “we were only down for a week,” Andrews says proudly.
“We moved into carpeted offices above a bagel shop,” Harper says. “We couldn’t really teach on carpet, but we made do.”
Then they moved at the end of August 1993 into the former Columbia exhibit center on Lake Kittamaqundi. It took a lot of hard work to install a temporary dance floor, she says, but they ran the studio from there from September to January.
Adds Andrews: “If the studio burned down today, I wouldn’t have the strength to deal with it.”
The sisters, who now live in Ellicott City, grew up with five other siblings, children of a mother who loved to dance. They danced “their whole lives,” Andrews says, and their family even performed together on occasion.
“Who’d have thought that we’d still be teaching together 25 years later?” she says to her sister.
Today both women are married with families of their own. Andrews has three sons, ages 26, 20 and 17, who started dancing at age 4 and stopped in their early teens. Harper’s 16-year-old daughter is a lifelong dancer and a member of the studio’s show troupe team. Her 12-year-old son has never danced formally.
The pair moved from the exhibit center in January 1994 into their current quarters at The Shops at Gateway Plaza off Columbia Gateway Drive, where they have three dance rooms and a dance supply store. They employ 12 teachers to instruct 600-plus students ranging in age from 2 to adult, using an 8-1 ratio.
Harper says they take their time hiring teachers to find the right fit since everyone on the staff works so closely together. “We all get along really well,” she says.
Harmony of philosophy and teaching style are more critical than ever because teaching dance has become “supercompetitive” in Howard County, Andrews explains. There are now approximately 15 dance studios within a 15-mile radius of their location.
“It’s a challenging profession, and it requires a delicate relationship between teacher and student,” she says. Some of their students are serious dancers considering further study or a career, and some are recreational dancers whose needs must be met differently.
Harper says Backstage Dance has a very strong group of girls competing with their show troupe now, and they are devoted to their art. “This is their second home,” she says. “We probably see them more than their parents do.”
The work ethic and practice requirements “might seem overwhelming” to anyone taking lessons in a studio for the first time, Andrews notes. She says she and her sister are grateful that parental support runs so high for the demanding and not-inexpensive activity, which she describes as similar to playing sports on a travel team.
Katie Carpenter King, who took classes at Backstage Dance from 1993 to 2000 and now owns Studio 180 Dance in Annapolis, says that even after she went to college and graduate school, she gravitated back to Andrews and Harper.
“It’s so effective and impressive the way they run their studio, because as dancers, we have an expiration date,” she says. “But as studio owners, they set themselves apart by constantly looking for ways they can improve so there’s a never-ending flow of dance education. They get a lot of loyalty.”
Andrews says that, even with the downturn in the economy in recent years, “the last thing our parents would take away is something from their kids.
“That’s one of the advantages of Howard County — there’s a professional and educated demographic here, and parents want what’s best for their children,” she says.
‘For the love of dancing’
The sisters offer classic styles of dance and also keep up with all the latest dance trends, holding classes in jazz, tap, lyrical, ballet, hip-hop and pointe, which are all listed on the home page of their website, thebackstagedancestudio.com.
Over the past 25 years, many of the studio’s students have received dance scholarships to such institutions as the University of Oklahoma, University of Maryland-Baltimore County and Elon University, Andrews says. Others have gone on to professional careers on Broadway and in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and some have become performers on cruise ships and at Disney World. Many current students also appear in local theater and community productions.
Ann Marie Havrilko, mother of four daughters ages 11 to 23, says her family has spent 20 of the last 25 years with at least one daughter enrolled in classes at Backstage Dance Studio.
“It’s been a very positive experience, and it’s taught them discipline, confidence and respect for their peers,” Havrilko says.
So positive, in fact, that the older two are now teaching at the studio and working in the store. “We’ve done this for so long that when it’s time for lessons, I just get in my car and say ‘dance’ and the car knows where to go,” Havrilko teases. “They treat us like family there.”
That level of trust isn’t lost on Andrews and Harper. In order to give back to the community that has supported them, the studio frequently raises funds for Sarah’s House, a shelter at Fort Meade, and holds food and clothing drives.
But reaching more students and passing on their love of dance as an art is a top priority for them as artistic directors.
“Our recitals are our biggest form of advertising,” Andrews says. “From soup to nuts, we want to showcase everything we’re about during this one opportunity to have a captive audience.
“We feel very blessed to have what we have,” she says. “Everything we do is for the love of dancing.”Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times